A self-described creator of “original songs and gibberish,” David P. Murphy is a jack of all trades—and master of them all.
Writing is writing, Murphy insists. Listening to the torch songs, tributes, and satirical asides that characterize his albums, it’s incredible to imagine that the same individual could make such seemingly different works of art.
Murphy began with music. He started playing the piano at age 5 and was writing music by age 9. His teacher wanted him to play strictly what was on the page, but he wanted to take it to the next level and create his own accompaniments.
“Quite frankly, sheet music is not that good,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t have all the colors.”
Shrugging, he explained, “It’s a left/right brain thing, really. It needs to be expressed by the composer in a certain way or there’s nothing to memorialize the composition.”
As a younger man, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue songwriting. His band David Murphy and the Storks performed in many places that have since shuttered their doors. In his opinion, the best club in L.A. was At My Place, where Bobby Caldwell and various smooth jazz singers used to perform.
“It was a remarkable time,” he said.
After living in LA for 25 years, Murphy returned to Nebraska. “Out there where the west begins,” as he sings. The Midwest seems to have inspired many of his songs. “Long Lake,” for example, is an instrumental piece that opens with bird calls, evoking early morning walks by a lake. Specifically, for Murphy, Long Lake in Park Rapids, Minnesota.
Murphy uses diverse instrumentation in his songwriting: birdsong, backup harmonies, and horn sections, as well as the standard guitar, bass, and drums. In torch songs such as “Violet is the New Blue,” he elevates the melodies with key changes and modulations. With influences ranging from Randy Newman to Joni Mitchell, he has developed a voice all his own.
Murphy has found many opportunities to collaborate with area musicians as a producer, arranger, and accompanist. He engineered, arranged, and co-produced Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards Outstanding Jazz nominee Camille Metoyer Moten’s album Classic, which was also nominated for an OEAA in September 2019 for Album of the Year.
Classic is the culmination of a 10-year collaboration. Their relationship is an “almost telepathic thing,” in Murphy’s words.
“I want things to sound timeless,” he said.
Moten’s rich vibrato reaffirms the timelessness of the songs. The album includes two songs penned by Murphy, “Totally Blue” and “I Can Barely Think About the Spring.”
Murphy also produced, recorded, and arranged the single “Stand by Me” for Julie Baker, a local jazz vocalist. Baker said, “[David] has this incredible gift of taking a song and making it new again. So many times, I will take a song to a rehearsal and he will say ‘let’s mess with this,’ which is code for ‘we are going to make it our own.’ He wants to get it right and does not cut corners.”
Even in the production process, it always comes back to the writing. “Everything serves the song [and] grows organically from there,” Murphy said. “I want things a certain way, as any writer does. It poses a challenge.”
Throughout all of Murphy’s albums, including his collaborations, a narrative thread binds together the different genres—perhaps owed to his experience writing prose fiction and satire.
“I was tainted [by satire] from a young age,” he said with a laugh, referencing inspirations such as Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, and Monty Python.
Murphy’s SoundCloud page is peppered with fake ads. One of the “sponsors” for his SoundCloud is deadflowers.com, originally made for his friend Dave Wingert, a morning DJ on AM/FM Boomer Radio.
He contributed “Moby Dick and Jane,” a piece he described as “mash-up satire,” to McSweeney’s, a popular satire website. His five published books include Zombies for Zombies: Advice and Etiquette for the Living Dead, a motivational guide for the recently (un)deceased.
Murphy takes many things in life with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
He has a genetic predisposition for high blood pressure. Nearly five years ago, it manifested suddenly and without warning, destroying the optic nerve in his left eye in what is known as an ocular stroke.
The first sign something was wrong was a change in temperament. The normally genial Murphy became cranky. He said he knew he had high blood pressure, but never knew this version of a stroke existed.
Losing half of his vision changed a lot of things for Murphy.
As with most things, Murphy approaches his loss of sight with a sense of humor. “In a stereo world, it’s hard to be mono,” he quipped.
Even the most difficult obstacles seem easier with a laugh.
“It’s a lot harder to find things around the house,” he admitted. “Darkness is not my friend.”
Within two years of having his stroke, he met three people with the same condition. He said it’s “like when you get a new car and you start to see the car [everywhere.]” It has been five years, and he tries his best to keep a positive attitude.
“We can all get lulled into a false sense of security about what we do and who we are,” Murphy said. “I know other people who have situations far worse than mine. You move on, you be grateful for what you got.”
Talking about these life changes, he got goosebumps. “Music means more [now]. It’s like some kind of bold underscore.”
Visit davidpmurphy.com for more information.
This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.